On Love in the Family: What we may expect from Pope Francis’ newest document, to be released tomorrow

Much as with the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to You”), Pope Francis’ reflection on the created order and the principles of integral ecology, the release on Friday, April 8, of Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), is being accompanied by both anticipation and anxiety.

Officially known as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia will be Francis’ meditation on the work of the two separate gatherings of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015 on the family in the modern world.

The synods were both controversial and marked by intense and often rancorous debate and discussion among the bishops that centered ultimately on three main topics: the question of admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to the Eucharist, same-sex unions, and couples in “irregular situations,” especially cohabitation. The intense focus on these questions has obscured the many other crises and challenges facing families today that were studied in some depth by the Synod of Bishops and that were then presented in its final document. These texts are likely to be the main touchstones for Francis’ meditations and thus provide a useful starting point for what is likely to be covered in the apostolic exhortation.

The Vatican also released a special reading guide to the world’s bishops in the days leading up to the release of the exhortation. The guide was a reminder that the exhortation is “first and foremost a pastoral teaching” and that “the Gospel must not be merely theoretical, not detached from people's real lives. To talk about the family and to families, the challenge is not to change doctrine but to inculturate the general principles in ways that they can be understood and practiced.”

What are some of the key aspects that we can expect?

Will Francis permit “Catholic divorce?”

No. Pope Francis already has declared that there will not, and indeed cannot, be anything that resembles Catholic divorce. In his press conference on the flight from the United States to Rome last September, he replied to a question about so-called “Catholic divorce” through loose annulments by declaring, “This is not something the Church can change. It is doctrine; as a sacrament, marriage is indissoluble.”

Will divorced and civilly remarried Catholics be allowed to receive Communion?

Of the vexed issues during the synods, the most incendiary was that of Communion and the divorced and civilly remarried. In the final report at the end of the 2015 synod, the bishops revealed a general consensus of a need for better pastoral care for the divorced and finding a way to integrate the divorced and civilly remarried into the life of the Church without abandoning the key teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. To be sure, there were some bishops who expressed a desire to find pastoral paths to admitting the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. Francis’ recent statements have shown a desired balance between pastoral mercy and upholding the Church’s teachings on the Sacrament of Marriage. On his flight back to Rome from Mexico in January, Francis spoke about the need for integration for such couples into the life of the community, adding, “It is a matter of integration ... the doors are all open. But one cannot just say: from now on ‘they can take Communion.’ This would also wound the spouses, the couple, because it won’t help them on the path to integration.” Look for his exhortation to focus on recurring themes that he has expressed over the last three years, especially integration, accompaniment and discernment.

Will he address same-sex unions?

The Synod of Bishops in its final report did speak about same-sex unions, and Francis has been clearly opposed to such radical obliteration of authentic marriage. In its declaration, the Synod of Bishops stated that “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Francis likely will refer to or quote the bishops on this subject.

Will cohabitation be discussed?

Much as with same-sex unions, cohabitation — along with irregular marriages — will almost certainly be covered by the pope. The approach to those in irregular marriages will likely be nuanced, building on the synod and its statement that “the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them.”

What about divorced Catholics?

The synod was quite concerned about divorced Catholics who have chosen never to remarry, and Francis likely will pick up the concern of the bishops who wrote last year, “divorced people who have not remarried, and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. The local community and pastors should accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when they are in serious financial difficulty.”

What other topics will he cover?

The best roadmap for where Francis is probably going to take his exhortation on the work of the synod is likely the final document from the bishops. If that is the case, he will meditate on the vocation of the family, love in the family setting and the grim problems endured by families around the globe.

What will the reaction be to the exhortation?

If the reaction to the events of the two synods was an indicator, there will be intense media interest and heated discussion in many quarters of the Church as well as Catholic media. As with Laudato Si’, there will also be misinterpretations, quotes taken out of context and fierce debates over the meaning of certain passages.

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.